LEGENDARY SURFERS
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Don James (1912-1996)


(This chapter of Volume Four of LEGENDARY SURFERS is largely taken from Don James’ photo book Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-42. Appreciations to Tom Adler and Craig Stecyk for permission to quote liberally from the book.)



Don James was a California surfer who became a dentist and one of surfing’s earliest quality photographers. He was around early enough to have surfed with some of California’s surfing pioneers and was around long enough to shoot pictures of surfers and the surfing lifestyle throughout the 1940s. Significantly, he surfed in Southern California during World War II and told a lot about what those days were like for him personally, and for Southern California surfers in-general.

“When I saw Tom Blake’s surfing photos in National Geographic that was it,” Don recalled. “We’d go to the library and pore over Blake’s stuff. My dad had an old Kodak folding camera, and I grabbed it and started taking photos. Our group hung out at the Del Mar Club in Santa Monica, and we worshipped the older guys like Bob Butts, Bob Moore, Pete Peterson, Paul Stater, Chauncy Grandstrom, and Johnny McMahon. We were the only teenagers around. I began shooting pictures to show our parents and teachers what was going on. You know, ‘Hey mom, look, it’s not so bad, it’s actually neat!’”[1]

One of his early surfing buddies was Fred Beckner. Don recalled some of their times together with older surfers his parents had entrusted them with, at “the camp” at San Onofre:

“Fred Beckner had immense appetites and no predisposition toward suppressing them,” recalled James of the period circa 1937. “This was brought home to me when Fred would coerce my other ‘guardians’ into leaving me alone in the camp [at San Onofre] and driving off to the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa in the hope of meeting girls. Camp life and its isolation were apparently too much for Freddy, and he would bellow his verbose mating howl and demand transport to civilization. Each time they abandoned me in such a manner, I would wonder if they were ever coming back. They always did, with eight hours being the average duration of their absence. I’m not certain that this was what my mother had in mind when she entrusted her son into their care.”[2]

Another friend who used to go with him to San Onofre was Chuck Eddy.

“Chuck Eddy loved to cook but had the frightening habit of making whatever crawled, flew, or burrowed its way into the campsite into an entrée. I was unable to attend school for a week because I had fallen off the bus on which I had hitched a ride and broken my leg. To save the nickel fare I snapped my femur; talk about false economy! We camped for eight days at Onofre and never saw another soul. The closest resident was Senator Cotton, who lived a couple of miles up the coast in a mansion at San Mateo Point.”[3]

About his friends and starting to use a camera at the beach, Don explained: “There were little groups of people who surfed, but they didn’t necessarily know of one another. Altogether there were probably less than a couple of hundred guys [surfing] in the entire state. The photos were a way to let people know what we were up to. We were involved in this great activity and totally stoked up. I guess there was also a little ego gratification involved. It was a good deal to display them and impress a pretty girl. At our high school, we were the only kids like us; everyone else played football.”[4]

“We were members of a loose-knit group called the Del Mar Surfing Club that didn’t really have meetings. There was a patch and that was about it. [In contrast] The PVSC was very organized; guys had color-coordinated sweats with their name on them. The Del Mar people used to think that surfing was definitely not a team sport. Maybe we were just jealous of those plush outfits. There were some very hot riders in the PVSC, like Doc [Ball], Cliff Tucker, Tulie Clark, Leroy Grannis, and Hoppy Swarts. All in all we were friendly toward each other and had some great times together.” [5]

Next to the Del Mar Club was “the old Bay Street lifeguard headquarters, where during the off-season guards would illegally bunk to save money. There wasn’t much available at the beach in terms of steady employment back then. Before the Santa Monica municipal guard service was formed in the thirties, surfers worked sporadically at the beach clubs as guards, but that was about it.”[6]

“Life in the Depression was hard,” Don James admitted, “but it encouraged us to appreciate what we had and to live simple lives. My dad scrambled to keep us afloat. It was never too bad for me because there was always the beach to turn to.”[7]

For a time, circa 1938, Don was employed at the posh Bel Air Bay Club,[8] where he often got burnt by the sun.

“We never thought about skin protection from the ravages of ultraviolet radiation. A severe sunburn was considered a sign of good health.”[9]

Around 1938, “The surf fashion craze of the extremely wide bell bottom pant” came into vogue. “We used to buy them in Santa Monica at Brauns and then have a tailor let them out. They got progressively wider and wider, and eventually they caught on with the pachucos in the barrio. Once that happened, they were out at the beach.”[10]

In 1938, Pete Peterson shaped Don a board. Commenting on a photo Don took of Pete working on the board with planer, Don wrote: “This is Pete shaping my first Peterson board in his garage on 17th Street. To earn this shape job, I labored for Peterson for a full year as his lawn boy, babysitter, and aide-de-camp.”[11]

Around 1939, Don did a fair amount of hanging out at Sorrento Beach. In a caption to a 1939 photo of a bunch of his friends leaning against a wall there, James wrote: “Sorrento was located in Santa Monica at the base of the California Incline road. A couple of decades later I would live just up the beach next door to fellow surfer Peter Lawford. Our idyllic life would be destroyed whenever Peter’s brother-in-law, [U.S. President] John F. Kennedy, would come to visit. JFK delighted in going for a swim in the surf, ditching his secret service guards in the process, and then resting against this very same wall while watching the melee as they frantically searched for him.”[12]

On December 7, 1941, at Topanga Point, Don took a shot of Ed Fearon, Jack Quigg and him. “It was a balmy Sunday and the news about the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor was coming in over the radio. We were paying sixty dollars a month for rent, which was split three ways, and life was good. Suddenly, everything had changed. We all knew we were going off to war.”[13]

The changes were well documented, particularly a photograph his friend Doc Ball later took – lighthearted on the surface but with overtones of impending doom – “shows a Palos Verdes Surfing Club member in a drunken stupor being helped to his feet and taken to a waiting car. The reason for such overindulgent merriment was that the young healthy surfer, in the prime of life, was to enter the armed forces the next day. With WWII raging, everyone knew that his chances of ever surfing or seeing his friends again were uncertain.”[14]

During the war, Don had a girlfriend at USC. “On our last date we went to Laguna for the day. Unfortunately, my car broke down, and it took until nightfall to get it going. As we started back, she said that her parents would be pretty upset about her coming home later than they expected. I knew I really was in trouble when the car’s headlights suddenly went out. Wartime blackout conditions were in effect, and it was so dark that there was absolutely no way to drive any further. We were stuck out there alone on the Old Coast Road, and there wasn’t a soul or a telephone around. I let her stay in the car, and I slept outside on the ground. When we finally got to her house the next morning, it was very dramatic. Her parents had called the police and demanded that I be arrested. I never saw her again.”[15]

By 1942, Don “was an apprentice seaman in dental school… to impress the girls [we were currently going out with], [my friend Frank] Donahue decided to organize a tour of the submarine he was serving on. At first it didn’t seem like such a great idea, but as I recall by the third pitcher of martinis, it was sheer genius. Frank procured a laundry bag full of uniforms somehow, and we all snuck on the base wearing them. The actual tour of the sub was uneventful, but since Donahue had disguised me in an officer’s uniform, everywhere we went sailors saluted me. When Frank started the engines, all hell broke loose and the sub’s security detachment arrived with their weapons drawn. Somehow they bought my Lieutenant JG-bit and then pretended not to notice that our ordinary seamen weren’t really men at all. Donahue’s bravado was unparalleled. In succeeding years, Frank would roll through one amazing adventure after another. Probably his greatest legitimate escapade was capturing and ‘fresh-water training’ live sharks for Howard Hughes’s RKO movie studio. Donahue would go out and catch the sharks at dawn, come ashore and load them into a trailer, and then haul them up to Hollywood in time for the day’s shoot.”[16]

“Frank Donahue always had something going. During college, Frank realized that the movie studios needed young men to populate the spate of war films they were producing.”[17]

Don joined in, too. His work in Hollywood included: doubling for Cary Grant in Mister Lucky and roles in Back to Bataan [1945] and The Moon is Blue. There were others, but his work in the movie industry was not his focus. “I don’t remember the names of most of those films, they were just a way to earn money. They gave you $35 to start, and with salary adjustments for stunt work, you could pocket a hundred bucks a day.”[18]

His focus was dentistry.

“I got interested in becoming a dentist because of Dr. Barney Wilkes and Dr. John Heath Ball,” Don wrote. 

“They were two outstanding men who surfed a lot and did something to help others. I was exposed to the lifeguards on the Santa Monica force, and the way they conducted themselves always impressed me. They were the first organized professional group of guards around, and they worked hard to establish a respect for surfing. I learned about the Hawaiian concepts of aloha and doing for others first from people like Johnny McMahon, Tony Guerrero, Duke Kahanamoku, Pua Kealoha, Hackshaw Paia, and, of course, Lorrin Harrison and Pete Peterson.”[19]

“It was Pete who gave me my first job,” recalled Don James, “and he later took Cap Watkins aside and said, ‘Look, the kid needs to be a doctor and we’ve got to help him.’ That got me on as a Santa Monica guard. I’d attend school all day and work for the city all night on the pier. I had a scholarship from the Navy, so my grades had to be good. One failure and you were out of the program immediately. Being a lifeguard enabled me to get through dental school, so I owe it all to Peterson and Watkins. If the university or the government had ever found out I was working another job, they would have washed me out straight away.”[20]

By 1943, Don James was in dental school, “tooling around in Frank Donahue’s old ‘40 Chevy convertible. Girls were everywhere during the war years, and we all felt a little guilty having so much fun with the fighting going on. My time in the navy came later – in ‘44, I remember swimming at Okinawa in an area I thought was secured. I knew that we were still mopping up elsewhere on the island, but the ocean looked so inviting that I just had to jump in. I was offshore diving on a sunken Japanese ship when the water started splashing all around me. The air buzzed and I realized that a sniper was zeroing in on me. I hid behind a rock and waited several hours for nightfall so I could skulk back in. During those long hours I recalled the guilt we all shared that day in Laguna. I would have gladly traded places with that worried aspiring young dentist back at Oak Street. I no longer felt guilty; right then I felt stupid and lucky.”[21]

“The times had a desperate air. Anything went in a nervous laissez-faire sort of way.”[22]

“During World War II, San Onofre was taken over by the military and declared off-limits to civilians. We began to frequent the Laguna area since the diving was great. I graduated from dental school [in 1944] … and went into the navy.”[23]

“I’ve never really done anything extraordinary; maybe I happened to be where things occurred a few times, maybe I happened to do a couple of things first.”[24]

“Don had little desire to make claims of preeminence in the photographic field,” wrote Craig Stecyk, “but for the record, among the photographic innovations that he either pioneered or greatly expanded the use of, for documenting the sport of surfing, are these: extreme telephoto lenses, large and micro-mini formats, camera boards, extreme wide angles, water housings, tubal perspectives, gyroscopic mounts, single-lens reflex systems, motor-drive sequences, helicopter perspectives, boat perspectives, and telephoto water shots.”[25]

“For many of his younger patients,” continued Stecyk, “and for two generations of surfing magazine readers, Don James was an example that terminal adolescence wasn’t a requirement for being a true, hardcore surfer. Perhaps that was his most significant achievement.”[26]

(Don James, Ed Fearon and Bud Rice)






[1] James, Don. Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942: Photographs by Don James, ©1996 by Tom Adler. Introduction by C. R. Stecyk, p. 11.
[2] James, Don. Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 133. Don James written caption to image on p. 78.
[3] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 133. Don James written caption to image on p. 78.
[4] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942,, ©1996 p. 10.                                         
[5] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 130. Don James written caption to image on p. 65.
[6] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 123. Don James written caption to image of Pete and Cap Watkins on p. 30.
[7] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 11. See also p. 122 and plate on p. 22.
[8] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 13.
[9] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 130. Don James written caption to image on p. 66.
[10] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, pp. 130-131. Don James written caption to image on p. 67.
[11] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 122. Don James quoted. See plate on p. 23.
[12] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 137. Don James written caption to image on p. 100.
[13] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 138. Don James written caption to image on p. 105.
[14] Lynch, Gary, “Doc Ball, Legendary Lensman,” April 10, 1990.
[15] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, pp. 135-136. Don James written caption to image on p. 93.
[16] James, Don. Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 140. Don James written caption to image on p. 115.
[17] James, Don. Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 140. Don James written caption to image on p. 114.
[18] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 14. Don James quoted.
[19] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 18. Don James quoted.
[20] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, pp. 18-19. Don James quoted.
[21] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 138. Don James written caption to image on p. 107.
[22] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 140. Don James written caption to image on p. 118, writing about 1943.
[23] James, Don. Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 139. Don James written caption to image on p. 113.
[24] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 17. Don James quoted.
[25] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 17.
[26] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 19.

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